1. Introduction: The Situation
In the conversation classes that I teach, the books (Stretch, Oxford Books) often present grammar and other “skills” in a perplexing way. They present the form of the grammar or skill, without explaining anything very much about why the form is the way it is. Often any explanation is done with the phrase, “usually…” or “we say…”. For example, when explaining the use of too and enough the book categorizes each by its use with negation:
That’s too spicy for me.
Alex isn’t old enough to see that movie.
Never does the book even present the use of [neg + too + adjective + (noun)] It’s not too hot. In fact, the book reinforces the idea, implicitly, through its extensive use of bolding both “not” and “enough”:
The tea is not hot enough.
I do not have enough money to buy this game.
This surface reinforcement of [neg + enough] and always comparing them with uses of too without negation successfully leads students away from any [neg +too] construction. This is a problem because, as you may suspect, the use of [neg + too] is extremely common in English. For example:
Now, imagine being a learner– how do you go about understanding these utterances if you have been herded by English classes into avoiding [neg + too] constructions? If a student only has a surface form education like the pedagogy of the Stretch books, then they will be entirely lost. This focus on the form of grammar (and the other skills) is explicit in the “How Stretch works” section of the book’s introduction.
“The Grammar page provides a clear presentation of new language structures in context. The students are encouraged to listen to and then repeat the sentences in the grammar chart to solidify the form and pronunciation of the structures. There are multiple opportunities for students to use the grammar in controlled practice activities as well as less controlled practice in the Grammar Talk! section at the back of the Student Book. A Grammar Reference at the back of the book provides more comprehensive explanations and additional controlled practice.”
What they mean exactly by “in context” and “comprehensive explanations” is unclear to me. For too and enough, the grammar page in the back adds two things: 1) more examples that reinforce the [neg + enough] and [pos + too] constructions and 2) two sentences about when to use too and enough that are entirely too vague and misleading:
We can use too and enough to make complaints. We use too when there is more of something that we need. We use not enough when we need more of something.
But we can see that the [neg + too] construction breaks this explanation at a fundamental level. First, because we use these constructions to do more than complain and 2) [neg + too] is not an emphasis that there is more of something than we need, but it is also not synonymous with not enough.
Now, to say all of this is not to simply dump on Oxford Books (though, also yes). While the assumed theory in Stretch is one I dislike, namely that language learning is simply repetition of forms until they move into long-term memory where the language centers of the brain will store and retrieve them when needed, even task-based (TBLT) methods can be critiqued for this kind of learning.
A key issue at heart here is what the fundamental unit of learning is exactly. For Stretch the language form itself is the fundamental unit, for TBLT methods, the task is the fundamental unit. But these and other theories often lack the ability to transfer the specific skill they teach (i.e. a specific language form or the ability to perform a specific task) into novel contexts. A reason for this is thought to be because the core concepts of the languaculture are not being fully taught or learned by students. In Vygotskian sociocultural theory then, a pedagogy based on the fundamental unit of concepts provides the best path towards the internalization of linguistic tools to accomplish the needs and goals of language users beyond the specific learning instances of the classroom.
2. Concept-Based Instruction
Concept-based Instruction (CBI) is a pedagogy within sociocultural (or cultural-historical) theory. The defining feature of CBI is that it takes concepts as the fundamental learning unit, in contrast to content-based, task-based or other-based learning systems which prioritize the content, task or something else as the unit of learning.
Language under a SCT framework is viewed as a cultural tool that is transmitted to new members of a cultural through social interaction. Language then is a historical phenomena and the types and forms of language that any individual learns is the result of history. This external language that new members of a culture are exposed to then transfers from the social plane to the individuals psychological plane through need-based goal-oriented action. In this process, the linguistic tools for accomplishing these goals are internalized and changed by the individual according to their own personal history and experience in the world. When a linguistic tool is internalized, it can then be used by an individual without conscious control, or as speaker’s sometimes reply to questions of why they say certain things, “that’s just the way it is.”
The aim of education and teaching then, is the promotion of the social forms of language in the individuals internal psychology, where they can use the language as a tool. Intentional and agentive use of a linguistic tool that also conforms to the social standards of a community is the challenge. Traditional methods have emphasized a specific standard form, whereas many social-constructivist methods have eschewed social standards in favor of letting students simply express themselves and create their own standards. CBI and SCT are neither of these extremes. CBI wants to take the standards as they exist in their most generally applicable forms and gives students the tools to wield those forms agentively but with the knowledge of how their intentions will also be perceived by the community.
To do so, CBI takes the concept as the unit of learning. Concepts are generalizable and complete, meaning that by examining the concept, all forms of that concept should be understandable. This is shown to the student through a heuristic model, or a model that cannot be shallowly memorized, but must be appealed to by the student in order to understand communicative phenomena. Additionally, the model is not presented piece-by-piece (as the Stretch books may intend, by excluding some forms) as this can lead to internalizing a “step” incorrectly and then derailing the learners understanding of the concept. The next two sections will describe theses models or schemas, called SCOBAs, and their use. Following that, the role of externalization in promoting internalization with be addressed.
Lantolf and Poehner (2014) emphasis that in CBI there are different types of social and psychological mediation that individuals use to perform tasks and achieve socially-motivated goals. On one end is the psychological automatic mediation. At this stage, the individual has internalized (see the next section) the social concept psychologically such that they do not need to use any other material mediation, whether that be their own vocalized language or a physical tool (pen and paper) or a social aid, such as a more able peer.
SCOBAs in contrast are the stage of development before a concept has been or is in the process of moving to the psychological plane. When individuals are first internalizing a concept, they often need a physical or other material tool to help mediate their performance. In CBI this is called a schema for complete orienting basis of action or SCOBA. Schemas are any material tool that makes clear the complete process of performing some social action.
As mentioned before, Concepts in CBI are scientific concepts, in contrast to spontaneous, empirical concepts that we learn through experiencing the world. CBI concepts are generalized and provide a navigation of the concept in as wide a range as is possible. The SCOBA then, is a material representation of that concept that a student can use to mediate their understanding of a phenomena. Lantolf and Poehner (2014) emphasis that SCOBAs are heuristics, they cannot be simply memorized language or explanations. Students using SCOBAS pre-internalized will have to refer to them as they go through the process of explicitly understanding that concept. As a schema then, diagrams, flowcharts and other visualizations make good heuristics in that the student can appeal to them without having to read pages and pages of text, most of which will not be recalled when asked to explain a phenomena.
2.2 Internalization and Externalization
CBI is concerned primarily with the internalization of explicit scientific concepts, however, another problem learners have is un-doing the spontaneous concepts they already have internalized. This consciousness raising is the first stage of CBI, however SCT does not recommend a single method or activity to do so, leaving it up to the teachers to both identify what those spontaneous concepts are and how to bring them to awareness.
One study that is particularly interesting had to do with patients who needed to control their blood pressure. In the study, patients were shown a visualization of their heart-rate through a monitor and overtime were able to consciously control their heart rate. This “internalized” phenomena (a person’s heart rate) was made explicit and thus open to possible control through externalization, or the monitor. By making clear where the patients starting point is (the internalized state of their heart-rate), they were able to eventually exert a certain amount of conscious-control of that phenomena.
A particular failure of grammar instruction historically is the fact that while students were able to consciously explain the rules of the grammar they had been taught, when asked to communicate using that grammar, the explicit instruction did not always appear. An important step for internalizing an explicit scientific concept then is to make clear to the student what their internalized state concerning that concept is in some way and to then track the process of internalization of the concept through externalizing it. For my own practice, this is done through recording conversations, listening to them and collecting examples of the target concept, which will be discussed below.
3. Praxis: Towards a development of CBI
Amy Ohta’s most recent paper in the Journal of Sociocultural theory and Language Learning is a descriptive account of the process of developing a concept for teaching Japanese wakimae to university Japanese language students. In that paper, Ohta describes how each iteration of the SCOBA and instruction were developed through cycles of teacher-preparation, student interaction with: 1) the SCOBA 2) each other and 3) the teacher, and then teacher reflection.
The interested reader can refer to Ohta (2017) itself for a full description of that process, but for my purpose here, what I want to focus on is where the boundaries should be drawn for outlining what exactly a teachable concept is. For Ohta (2017) that ended up being the idea of “modes of self”. Here, we’ll be looking at adverbs of degree or as I will call them, adverbs of scale: very, too and enough*. First, I’ll describe the SCOBA and the cycles that led to its current iteration and then way I try to promote internalization of the concept through externalization.
3.1 SCOBA – Adverbs as scales
As mentioned previously, the Stretch book fails to adequately prepare students to conceptualize adverbs of scale. More than that however, they don’t present the concept “adverb of scale” in a complete way. In particular, they only present the forms too and enough and only in the context of giving opinions. These “rules of thumb” are classic spontaneous concepts.
Here, I will attempt to describe the process I have gone through to develop a SCOBA and approach to help students internalize that SCOBA. At the end we’ll find that the SCOBA that I’ve developed so far are neither complete nor adequately orienting.
3.1.1 The first cycle
When I was preparing the SCOBA for adverbs of scale the first time, I only considered too and enough, as they are presented in the Stretch 3 book. From those examples, the schema I devised was a bar graph. For the sentence That’s too spicy. It might look something like this:
In class, I presented the example sentences from the grammar section to the students and then showed them how they can understand the adverb too as a bar graph that exceeds some limit. Too do so, I labeled the graph with content from the utterance. In particular, I put spicy on the side, as the descriptor of the thing being measured. I drew a line at some number (say, 60%) and labeled it my limit with “for me” written next to it to emphasis the actual form that is associated with the visual. This is represented by a bar graph that goes beyond my limit. The space between my limit and the top of this is labeled too.
After talking through my labels, I once more explained the meaning of the sentence this is too spicy for me through the visualization in a couple of simple sentences. Then, I asked the students to graph a second too sentence and explain it to a partner. Once any difficulties with the concept were talked through, I had the students attempt to explain the use of enough in the sentence They don’t have enough food. The students produced something like this:
The students are asked to take some further examples, use the diagram to create a visual explanation, and then explain the utterance to a partner. The purpose of this is to, as Lantolf and Poehner (2014) emphasize, to promote a heuristic approach to the concept. What I don’t want is for the students to be memorizing rules that are then just parroted back without understanding. By creating the diagrams themselves and then using language to explain their understanding to a partner, they make clear to themselves their own understanding or misunderstanding.
At this point, I moved away from the book and asked the students to consider the sentence, “That’s enough.” For context, I situated the utterance in a restaurant where a server was filling their glass of water and when you had the amount you wanted, you said, “that’s enough.” Students were asked once again to use the diagram to explain the use of positive enough. The students recorded something like this:
Through discussion, the students realized that the use of positive enough and negative enough imply different things. Where not enough means in many situations that there should be more of something, enough itself doesn’t simply imply the right amount but that if there is any more then it will be too much.
However, I realized that the diagram itself does not make clear the implied understanding of the phrase “that’s enough” as being related to “stop!”. This same problem was made more evident when the students were asked to diagram the sentence “I don’t have too much time to talk.” (a modified example from the textbook). In presenting this sentence, I gave the students three examples: The situation is that you are walking down the street and a salesperson wants to talk to you, so they say, “hi do you have time to talk about X’? To which you say:
a) I don’t have enough time to talk.
b) I don’t have too much time to talk.
c) I have too much time to talk.
The students were able to use the SCOBA to understand (a) and (c) without much difficulty, however the meaning of (b) was not made clear by the SCOBA itself. Instead, through an instructional conversation, I was able to lead the students towards understanding that (b) implied that they could talk, but that they didn’t have a lot of time, which puts it between (a) and (c) where the former means “no” and the later means “yes”.
In particular, the student’s did not know how to represent the negative in “too” utterances. I had at first thought that maybe just “x”ing the too portion of the graph would emphasize the “yes” answer, but the students did not find that clear and truly, it does not fit within the structure of the diagram.
3.2 Externalization – recording and collecting
After discussing the SCOBA and languaging with a partner using the SCOBA, students were asked to go back to the textbook to do the conversation activities related to the unit they were studying. In particular, the students were asked to discuss their opinions about a variety of topics related to some provided vocabulary.
Conversationally, the students are also practicing their ability do certain conversational skills, mostly related to listening (such as, turn-taking, backchanneling, and paralinguistic cues). Students chose a topic question they could ask a partner about and then they participated in short conversations. In order to lessen the cognitive load of both attempting to use the target grammar and also have a conversation, students record their conversations on their phones. This frees the students to have a conversation without splitting their attention too much.
After the conversation, the students listen back to their conversation and record any instances of their use of too and enough. Importantly, the students are asked to record exactly what they said in the conversation, mistakes and all. The students then correct any mistakes in the target grammar and then use the diagram to understand their own use to make sure it matches what they intended to do. Finally, students share their collected language and diagram with a partner, making sure they can explain their own use and intention. This process is repeated several times with different partners with changing topics if the students want.
The process of recording and listening back allows the students to externalize to themselves their own use of language that may have been opaque. The hope is that, similar to the studies mentioned in section 2, as the students become conscious of their use in practice, they can come to control that use through collecting and languaging about their use and intention.
After collecting examples of their use and misuse of the concept, I perform a series of dynamic assessments to gauge how clearly the students understand their own use of the concept, appealing to the SCOBA when necessary. All of these conversations and collecting occurs on a single note-paper where hopefully the student can see their own personal development of the concept in use.
To end, I want to think briefly about whether or not practicing CBI in this way and situation is a worthwhile pursuit. Or rather, can CBI work in a situation where the teacher has little control over the content, structure and underlying goals of the institution that they are working at? I’ll start with what I feel are some positive results and then I’ll share what feel like major limitations to my practice.
4.1 Dis-orienting and Re-orienting
Lantolf and Poehner (2014) note that the first step of CBI is to re-orient the students from their pre-understanding (or the way that they understand the concept before instruction) to the scientific or systematic concept that the teacher intends to develop in them.
What I think this example of CBI did somewhat well was dis-orienting the students away from the rule of thumb or spontaneous concept that the book was interested in teaching towards a more generalized systematic concept. By diagraming the sentences that the book provides and then providing examples that don’t conform to the rules from the book, but that can be explained by the SCOBA, the students realize that the use of syntax is not simply a rule they must follow, but a tool that allows them to express nuances in their intentions.
Often what I would do to drive this point further, was to search for “not too” on twitter for real examples. By seeing just how prolific the use of “not too” is in real use, students can see even better why the scientific concept is better than the spontaneous concept the book provides.
4.1 Complete orientation?
However, as we saw, it is not clear at all that the SCOBA used here was complete. In particular, the SCOBA did not lay clear the use of “not too” or even really “[pos] enough”, as in That’s enough! The scale does not make clear the implication that [pos] enough is a request to stop or that not too is a positive statement.
In particular, some part of the scale should involve some sort of value statement in order to emphasize what going under or over the limit would suggest. Additionally, a simple flowchart next to the scale that asks the leading questions that I the teacher usually ask would help the students understand the implications and to perhaps find errors in the concept itself. The use of the flowchart however asks the question– why is the scale necessary as a schema at all? Perhaps it is not the best representation of the concept.
4.2 The social
Finally, a major concern for this project is where the schema comes from. In other words, one what basis am I using the “adverbs of scale” in the first place? What group or community of speakers use scalar adverbs in the way I am describing and helping the students to internalize?
The first answer is that the community of practice is the English language learning classroom centered around the Stretch books. In other words, the students are enculturating into a specific language learning community, namely our classroom, with the textbook and me, the teacher, as the centered participants.
This teacher-centered and textbook-centered approach is fatally flawed as the class will certainly end (in one month, in fact) and then where do the students go to use this information? Ideally the concepts taught are robust enough and the students have internalized them well enough that they can try to employ them in future situations, but as a class, we have failed (and will fail) to provide this kind of transcendence activity into a new social community. Thorne and Reinhardt’s (2008) Bridging Activities Model is designed with this problem, in particular, in mind. The classroom culture is always limited and always ends and if we are not giving students opportunity to extend their learning into other social communities then it is not clear how the new concepts taught will help them in their futures, or that they can, in fact, use the concepts as psychological tools in novel situations at all.
4.3. Going Forward
Unfortunately there is very little that I can do about the social community problem of my practice in my current situation. However, previous attempts at teaching these same books involved much more use of video of authentic speech events using the BA model of careful listening and collecting. This empirical collection of the language-in-use provides a spontaneous example which hopefully can be understood by the concept as the students develop it. Time constraints have limited the use of authentic examples in the classroom thus far, though I think they may be a critical component in the next cycle.
Finally, in terms of the SCOBA itself, some work needs to be done to ensure that not too and [pos] enough are completely encompassed in the schema, perhaps by the addition of a flowchart or reconfiguration of the scale. One thought that I have been considering is changing it from a bar graph to a linear graph. Including the concept of time into the schema may help emphasize that both not too and [pos] enough have important relationships to time and their implications emphasis that relationship.